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The Boilerplate Rhino: Nature in the Eye of the Beholderby David Quammen
Rattlesnake Passion (On the Highway of Time in the Heart of Texas)
The world is a changeful place and Texas, despite what some folks might think, is part of the world. It was seventeen years since I'd set foot inside the snake farm at New Braunfels.
All I remembered was a turnstile and a row of cages, a pit full of diamondback rattlesnakes, a fellow named John Deck, and the shriveled carcass of a two-headed monkey. Probably the two-headed monkey was a figment, I'd begun to suspect, invented by my own brain in the course of telling and retelling a good story. It was too mythic. It was too precisely the sort of detail that a person would concoct for some ludicrous, gothic piece of fiction. This two-headed monkey in my mind's eye, this pitiful thing, was dried like a piece of jerky. And oh yes, there was also a vegetable scale — a tin pan beneath a spring gauge — hung up above the pit. I couldn't have told you whether the vegetable scale was an artifact of imagination or of memory. Memory, imagination, whichever, as I drove back into New Braunfels on a spring day not long ago, I had no expectation of finding it. I had no expectation of seeing a two-headed monkey. Probably, I thought, the snake farm itself would be gone.
I envisioned it long since foreclosed upon or lost in the pot of a poker game, fallen derelict, a sad nightmare of broken windows and ragged chickenwire and fading signs, done in by shifting values and new fashions in entertainment. I pictured it haunted by dozens of snakes that had suffered terminal neglect in their cages, left to starve so slowly that even they didn't notice the exact moment of death, dried by the Texas heat into pretzel shapes more pitifully macabre than even a two-headed monkey. I remembered it in vivid but unreal colors, like a fever dream or a horror-flick sequence shot in queasy sepia. I had to remind myself that there had indeed been a snake farm beside the highway at New Braunfels, Texas, and I had indeed spent time inside. Most likely, by now, it had been bulldozed to clear the lot. Most likely it had transmogrified into a Mini Mart or a video store. The world is a changeful place. Back in 1973, when I first stepped through the turnstile, a person could make a living of sorts, evidently, from a serpent menagerie on a dust-blown roadside. What's the scale for? I had asked John Deck.
Weighing rattlesnakes, he had told me. We buy them by the pound.
John Deck was a young man with a particular attitude toward snakes. In Texas, where venomous serpents still outnumber humans and cows and Japanese automobiles, you find quite a sampling of particular attitudes toward snakes. Some folks just plain hate them. With purblind passion they detest the poor animals from the depths of their tiny, sour hearts. The diamondback rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox, being common and large and modestly dangerous, is the bête noire of these people. Snake-haters kill diamondbacks for fun. They kill diamondbacks with a righteous zeal that they'd like to believe is somehow religious or patriotic or, at least, neighborly. They kill diamondbacks from habit. These people gather together annually in great civic festivals of cartoonish abuse, and slaughter, and ecstatic adolescent loathing, that go by the label of rattlesnake roundups. Often as not, for such an event, the local Jaycees serve as sponsor. Diamondback rattlesnakes are bought by the pound. Typically there's a cash prize for the longest snake; a prize for the most rattles; and a prize for the weightiest total delivery of snake flesh. Admission is charged, crowds gather, Coke and Dr Pepper and gobbets of fried diamondback are available at concession stands. Of course it's all high-minded and innocent, on the surface. It's a way to raise money for the hospital or the fire truck. Deeper down it's a pageant of hatred, wonderfully medieval, reflecting the same dire élan that might have stirred a Bavarian village during the early days of the Black Death. March is the favored month for such doings, notwithstanding what T. S. Eliot said about April. In March the snakes are still groggy from winter, they're loafing in underground dens, from which they can be conveniently flushed with infusions of gasoline. By April, they've likely dispersed. Or they might defend themselves.
Other people, a smaller minority of contrasting disposition, are what you might call snake fanciers. Snake fanciers buy and sell, they trade and collect. They view snakes as precious and transcendent commodities — same way another person, hardly more sane, might dote upon canceled stamps or antique Packards or the Pete Rose rookie baseball card. Snake fanciers know the blue-book value of any species at any given moment. The Mexican milk snake, Lampropeltis triangulum annulata, is smallish and nonvenomous but beautifully banded in yellow and red and black, a close mimic of the coral snake, and therefore it's highly prized. The Western coachwhip is a big matinee-idol of a snake, but too common to interest a fancier. The California kingsnake, not native to Texas, might go for fifty bucks as a hatchling. And amid fanciers, as amid roundups: Diamondback rattlesnakes are wholesaled by the pound. It's a matter of supply and demand.
John Deck was a snake fancier. He had only been rattler-bit a few times. At an early age he'd had his own pit full of diamondbacks, a plywood affair out near the garage. Some of the snakes would scootch themselves up vertically along the boards and John, cocky lad, used to knock them back down with his own quick right hand, delivering a light tap to the back of a rattler's head, until one day he presumed against a snake that was readier than he was, and caught a palmload of fangs. At the end of his grunt time in Vietnam, he came back from over there with a bag full of cobras, which he'd collected while walking patrol, using the butt of his M-16 for a pinning stick. When I met John, he was a full-time professional attendant at the New Braunfels snake farm — like a boy's dream of the perfect job, yes? — and still snake-hunting on his own time to fill out his private collection. I was fascinated. Sure, he told me, come along if you want. We'll go on down there to Terrell County.
Terrell County was not chosen at random. This was the place to go, this was the scene, if you were a serious fancier of the Texas herpetofauna. Diamondbacks could be had anywhere, but down in the rolling hills and gullies of Terrell County you might find a mottled rock rattler, or a Mojave rattler, or a trans-Pecos copperhead, or that exceptionally prized rarity, a Blair's kingsnake. So we drove in John's pickup, all through one hot afternoon and warm evening, to reach this Elysian desert on the far side of the Pecos River, just northwest of a border town called Langtry. We provisioned ourselves with sardines and Vienna sausages from the Langtry store. We cruised up and down the dirt roads by night, scanning the shoulders with high beams, on the lookout for nocturnal snakes, and then, after a few hours' sleep, by daylight we climbed through the gullies.
At some point we shanghaied a tarantula, which John locked away in a brown paper bag and which cost me sleep in the back of the pickup (we shared the truck bed, that spider and I, while John slept on the ground among scorpions) with its tireless scratching for freedom. In the privacy of the cab, as we cruised, John gossiped with other snakers over the CB. He talked guardedly to me about Vietnam, a delightful country if you happened to like deadly snakes. He told me some rattlesnake stories — the one about getting bit on the palm, the more elaborately comical one about the excitable emergency-room nurse who ran and tripped and broke her arm when he walked in for help and spoke the word snakebite, though that particular bite turned out to be empty of venom and he was less badly hurt than she was. He explained which species were scarce, highly prized, and which weren't. At another moment John mashed the brakes and dove out to grab a yellowbelly racer, Coluber constrictor flaviventris, a nonvenomous species and probably one of the more common in Texas. Notwithstanding the rarity theory of value, this racer was big and pretty and he wanted it; too eager to use a pinning stick, he nearly got chewed on before subduing it clumsily by covering its head with his hat. John Deck had an unheedful passion for snakes, almost any snakes, that an ecology-minded person just couldn't sanction and a generous-minded person just couldn't hate.
He didn't kill them. He didn't fry them. He didn't abuse them before crowds to prove the octane of his testosterone. He kidnapped them out of their habitat, yes. Sometimes he sold them or traded them, yes. Mainly he just fancied them.
In his company I enjoyed two days of vivid lunacy. And our quest for herpetological jewels was rewarded. We caught a nice little specimen of mottled rock rattler. We caught a trans-Pecos copperhead, elegant with its russet and tan bands. In those days this foolishness was legal. It even seemed like a good idea. The Blair's kingsnake, happy to say, eluded us.
A month later I left Texas. Too dry and too hot, I decided, with not nearly enough trout. I never saw John Deck again. But who could forget him?
Some of the things you can witness at a rattlesnake roundup in Texas or Oklahoma:
You can see thousands of pounds of diamondback rattlesnakes being measured and weighed. "We had 5,000 pounds of snakes turned in before noon the first morning," a snake-weigher at the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup told a reporter from Time after the 1988 event. "They're brought in U-Hauls so they don't freeze. We don't buy dead snakes." The total at Sweetwater that year was 11,709 pounds, and Sweetwater is just one roundup among dozens. Although dead snakes aren't bought, dying snakes are, and if you looked closely you might see that many are not in the pink of health. Some have suffered broken necks from rough handling with tongs. Some are starved and dehydrated, having been captured months earlier and stockpiled in anticipation of roundup day. One Texas herpetologist reckons that 95 percent of the rattlesnakes turned in at a given roundup have not been collected that weekend or in that vicinity. So much for the traditional notion of roundups — as festive occasions for desnaking the local countryside.
You can see an arts-and-crafts show. Among the items on sale, you're liable to find snakeskin belts, snakeskin gimme hats, plastic paperweights containing diamondback heads, earrings made from rattles, and perhaps the ultimate, a toilet seat of clear plastic within which are embedded baby diamondbacks. Whether the toilet seat (retail, around seventy-five dollars) qualifies in these towns as a piece of art, or merely a craft, is a question I'm not in position to answer.
You might see children, whole families, being photographed holding live diamondbacks — squeamish but grinning folks, secure in the knowledge that these particular animals have had their mouths sewn shut. You might see parents paying five dollars to buy a child the privilege of decapitating a rattlesnake with a hatchet. You can certainly see a sacking competition, wherein contestants race against a stopwatch to stuff ten diamondbacks into a sack, with a five-second penalty added each time the sacker gets bitten. The world rattlesnake-sacking record has been intermittently held by a Texan named Cotton Dillard — at least, that's the claim made by Mr. Dillard. He posted a time of 18.6 seconds at the town of Taylor in 1984. In a more recent year, Mr. Dillard slipped to 34 seconds, after a penalty.
You can see a club of dauntless fellows who call themselves the Heart of Texas Snake Handlers, based in Waco but on the road during roundup season, performing vainglorious antics in their matching T-shirts. You can see them do the Kung Fu Walk of Death, strutting barefoot down a gauntlet of diamondbacks and kicking the snakes aside. You can see them stack coiled diamondbacks on their heads. You can see them lie still in sleeping bags filled with rattlesnakes, purportedly to make an educational point about safe camping. Some guys have motorcycles; some guys have golf; some guys get drunk and beat people up with cue sticks on Friday night; the Heart of Texas Snake Handlers have snakes. You can see that these boys possess, in their own right, a very particular attitude.
Confession: Though I've snaked my way across Terrell County with John Deck, I've never attended a roundup. Occasionally over the years I've threatened myself with the notion, as a journalistic enterprise, but I was reluctant to contribute further to the atmosphere of manic, media-hungry persecution. Much of my information about them comes from a Texan named A. J. Seippel, a mild-mannered computer executive and amateur herpetologist, who has an attitude of his own. "If this were rabbits, or any other animal, it would have been stopped a long time ago," Seippel says. He and others are working to stop it now.
Sign-carrying and leaflet-distributing protesters, including Jim Seippel, have laid siege to the roundups. Conservationists, animal-rights groups, Earth First!ers, Humane Society chapters, reputable herpetological clubs — more than two dozen organizations have united to raise the long-overdue cry that rattlesnake roundups are retrograde and indecent. Jim Seippel is a persuasive spokesman. In dry tones tinged only slightly with outrage and sarcasm, he tells me about the stockpiling, the Kung Fu Walk of Death, the sewing-shut of mouths, the decapitations for fun ("What they're teaching kids is that wildlife can be abused"), and the lucrative harvest of gallbladders, which get pickled in whiskey and shipped to the Orient as aphrodisiacs. "Most of these people are really not interested in snakes," he says damningly. "They're interested in profit from them."
Seippel wears a blue pinstripe suit. He is stealing moments from work in order to meet with me, a generous act, since his group at IBM is debuting a new family of products this week. We're seated over spinach salads at a yuppie restaurant in Austin. Times have changed.
Jim Seippel was the focus of my visit but of course I have to go back to New Braunfels. For company I recruit my sweet and respectable older sister, who has raised two toddlers to college age and begun a computer career herself since the last time I made this drive. Lo, the snake farm is still there. EXCITING EDUCATIONAL ENTERTAINING, says the sign. Open for business, though it turns out that we are the only customers. We pay, and pass by the counter where the dried snake heads and scorpion paperweights and snakeskin wallets are on sale. My sister browses the cages, while I struggle to steady myself in the space-time continuum.
"John Deck still work here, by any chance?"
No. The current attendant doesn't know John Deck. This attendant is an amiable, heavyset old boy in jeans and a white T-shirt. I admit to him that, long ago, Deck and I made an expedition to Terrell County.
"You still hunt?" he asks me.
"Uh. No. Not anymore."
I mention that we had been on the lookout for a Blair's kingsnake. Then again, I say, probably anyone who goes down to Terrell County is on the lookout for a Blair's. He informs me that the Blair's kingsnake no longer bears that name; "gray-banded kingsnake" is what the field guides now say. And here in one of the glass cages is a specimen, a gorgeous little snake banded with black and orange and white and gray, hiding shyly behind its water dish. "Those gray-bands, they're up to three hundred dollar now," says the attendant. "Me, I just can't get into the same ballpark as that myself." In central Texas, as anywhere, inflation is pricing the working stiff out of the luxury-goods market.
"What'd you catch, down there in Terrell?" he asks. "You and old Deck." Oh, we got a trans-Pecos copperhead, I say, and a little bitty rock rattler. I don't bother to wonder why I should remember such tiny details, after almost twenty years. Memory is memory and, like love, it knows no logic.
"Now, both of those snakes," he says. "They're just out of sight now. Very highly prized."
Maybe he thinks I'm a potential buyer for some precious creature he's got stashed out back. Maybe he thinks I'm an undercover man for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, trying to entrap him into dealing a protected species. Most likely he's just an innocent, unsuspecting guy who's happy to chat snakes. Leaving my sister to carry the conversation, I wander off. I look for the big rattlesnake pit but find no sign of it. Could be that I imagined that part. No sign of a vegetable scale, either.
Turning down the back row of cages, I admire this world-class collection of unpopular beasts. There is an Ottoman viper, an emperor scorpion, an orange-kneed tarantula, a blue krait. There is a hefty arthropod identified only as a "bird-eating spider," presumably from some vine-draped Amazonian glade. There is an albino monocled cobra. A trans-Pecos rat snake, a Mexican kingsnake, a blacktail rattler. A speckled rattler, a Panamint rattler. A Sonoran sidewinder, which is also of course a rattlesnake. I find it hard to fathom how anyone could loathe and abuse such lovely animals. Surely that kind of twisted passion went out with the Black Death. Suddenly I raise my eyes to a dusty bell jar resting before me on a shelf.
Inside is the carcass of a two-headed monkey, dry as jerky. When things change, it's always surprising. And when they remain unchanged, it's astonishing.
Copyright © 2000 by David Quammen
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